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DTV transition still going through the (slow) motions

Like most DTV stations now on-the-air, KNOP-DT is operating at low-power to comply with the government-imposed, FCC mandate.

With 2002 coming to a close, nearly 600 stations that were supposed to be broadcasting a digital signal are not doing so, as the U.S. transition to digital television (DTV)remains marred in political debate and technical controversy.

The NAB said last week that 692 TV stations are now broadcasting in DTV. Yet, according to the DTV transition law handed down in 1996, approximately 1,288 commercial stations were supposed to begin broadcasting in digital on May 1, 2002. For a myriad of reasons, 596 stations have not complied. The FCC has threatened to fine these lagging stations, but thus far no such action has been taken.

One of the few positive aspects of the transition is that more than 90 stations on-the-air now are public stations that are not required to broadcast digital signals until May 1, 2003. In fact, unlike most commercial broadcasters, public stations have embraced digital broadcast technology, although they do get financial help from the federal government. Chief engineers from many of these PBS member stations have said getting on-the- air sooner gives them much-needed experience with the technology.

Now, five years after the first commercial digital transmission of a baseball game on September 16, 1997, the American public is still confused as to what "DTV" really means. Few have actually bought a TV capable of receiving these off-air digital signals. In reality, most consumers have only experienced digital television through cable and direct-to-home satellite services. The sluggish transition to digital by broadcasters has left them behind, and the ATSC transmission standard they use is fraught with technical problems.

Adding to the lack of terrestrial DTV acceptance is the fact that virtually all of the stations now on-the-air have taken advantage of an FCC ruling this year that allows them to broadcast at significantly lower power than was originally planned. This makes the signals harder to receive by viewers and hinders any serious attempt at building and sustaining a long-term DTV audience. The current signal coverage falls short of replicating the existing NTSC coverage area as stipulated in the FCC's original DTV plan.

Broadcasters have balked at the substantial energy cost associated with operating a digital transmitter at full power when few viewers are watching. However, it was the broadcast industry that proposed the DTV transition timetable that was enacted into law with the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Many stations have acknowledged that it can cost a station $10,000 per month or more to operate a digital transmitter at full power.

Such is the case with newly online DTV station KNOP-DT in North Platte, Neb. This small-market NBC affiliate went on-the-air December 9th at 250 watts. Using a low-power, non-upgradeable EMCEE digital transmitter and an Andrews antenna, Assistant Chief Engineer Jay De Walters said the station is simply complying with the FCC mandate and has no illusions of reaching its NTSC coverage area (DMA#209).

"Out here [in North Platte] there's nobody watching digital television," De Walters said, adding that KNOP-DT runs promos on-air to advertise the fact that they are the only station in the market on-the-air with a digital signal. "Honestly, television is not that important to people in this part of the country."

He said that the local electronics store (Video Kingdom) has one digital TV in its showroom that is receiving KNOP-DT's digital signal with a rooftop antenna. They've sold two digital sets thus far. "We're hoping that people, will see the quality difference, but out here in the middle of Nebraska, there really is nothing to watch." The area, which is not served by cable, does have access to hundreds of digital channels via satellite.

De Walters said the station wasn't able to come up with the money to get on- the-air on May 1, 2002 and received a six-month extension. They finally were able to get on-the-air for less than $300,000 with a low-power system that will never equal the reach of the station's NTSC service, he said.

KNOP-DT owner, Greater Nebraska Television, has also invested in another low-power, non-upgradeable digital transmitter for its sister station KHAS-DT in nearby Hastings, Neb.

During the station's broadcast day, it upconverts its analog programming and has no plans to broadcast widescreen or high-definition television programs in the immediate future. Harking back to the early days of television, KNOP-TV signs on each day at 5 a.m. and goes dark shortly after midnight.

Being a small station with a limited budget, De Walters said that they have no monitoring equipment available to get an idea of how far the station's signal is propagating. "There are no signs that I can point to that hint at how this transition is going to go," De Walters said. "Right now, it seems like a waste of money to us."

Looking at the "accomplishments" of this year, the NAB said DTV signals are now being transmitted in 174 markets that include 95.14 percent of U.S. TV households. What the organization does not say is that very few of the people can actually receive a digital signal. In addition, the NAB said that 67.5 percent of the more than 106 million U.S. TV households are in markets with five or more broadcasters airing DTV and 35.6 percent are in markets with eight or more broadcasters sending digital signals.

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) said that 2,179,114 "DTV products" had been sold through November, although only about 300,000 of those HDTV compatible monitors were sent out with DTV tuners. That means a mere 0.25 percent of TV homes are equipped to receive a digital signal over the air.

What has become clear is that American consumers, like those in North Platte, don't think DTV is important enough to discard their analog sets for new digital ones.

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